Impossible dream

 

Profile: From the playing fields of Meath to the newsrooms of Dublin, LiamHayes has come a long way. But he has been through the wringer with his latest venture, writes Shane Hegarty

Liam Hayes, people say, is a man who takes things to heart. He rewards loyalty and takes criticism badly. He is an intense individual, but finds inspiration in the corny sentimentality of Hollywood movies. He is obsessed with his enemies. From the moment he launched sports newspaper The Title, through its re-launch as Ireland On Sunday and into his adventure with Dublin Daily, he has come under constant attack from Independent Newspapers.

Media criticism hurts him. Instead of letting the paper arrows bounce off him, he allows them get under his skin.

Yet, he is stubborn and possessed with enormous self-belief. He came close to financial disaster with Ireland On Sunday before selling it on for a decent profit. While the industry marvelled at his lucky escape, he was planning to return with something bigger and far riskier. He was an editor with limited experience, yet believed he could break into the daily newspaper market. On Tuesday afternoon, Hayes learned what the rest of the industry had long guessed; that Dublin Daily - which ended its brief life as Dublin Evening - was not the product to do that.

The board told him it was winding up the company. Cheques were handed to staff, who were told to cash them as soon as possible, and the phone lines were cut. Hayes, it is reported, was devastated and tearful. Still in his early 40s, it is unlikely to be the end of his career, but it certainly looks like the end of a dream. Hayes joined the Meath Chronicle at 17, although in these years he would become best known as a Meath footballer of considerable skill, a 6 foot 3 inch giant of midfield. His sporting background may explain his later belief in the team ethic, as well as his fondness for impassioned team talks. It was at the Chronicle that he met sports journalist Cathal Dervan. After seven years at the Sunday Press, he joined with Dervan in founding The Title in 1997. The weekly paper had an almost forensic interest in sports coverage, carrying reports on everything from Premiership clashes to parish football games. It found its niche, but at the expense of a wider readership, so its content was broadened and the paper relaunched as Ireland On Sunday.

It was a paper with a blurred editorial focus, marrying Daily Mail sensibilities with a green-blooded political line. It also took its financial toll. Hayes re-mortgaged his house and asked the paper's directors for €50,800 each in order to keep the title afloat. By 2000, he was desperate to sell and Scottish Radio Holdings bought the newspaper for approximately €10.16 million, of which Hayes was believed to have received about €635,000. Married with four children, he is not a particularly flash individual, and is said to have used some of the money to buy a detached property to the front of the Lucan housing estate in which he was already living.

Hayes stayed on as the newspaper's editor, but his judgment sometimes landed him in controversy. There was an argument with Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, over invasion of privacy. There were stories and editorials whose right-wing tone caused consternation.

There was the paper's loyalty to Michelle de Bruin, long after her allies had accepted the evidence before them.

By the time SRH sold Ireland On Sunday to Associated Newspapers in 2001, Hayes had already moved on. He and Dervan briefly held the Irish franchise for website Sports.com, before Hayes launched his assault on the daily market in March of this year. It started as a morning paper and finished as an evening one. He claimed it had enough money to last for two years, but it ran out after less than four months. It declared itself to be the newspaper wholly loyal to Dublin, but found that Dubliners had little interest in it.

Yet, for all the ominous signs, Hayes is said to have remained bullish, insisting that it would succeed. Those staff that jumped early were left in no doubt that they were leaving a winning team. Where once he declared that he would watch Braveheart when he needed inspiration, he had now taken to referencing Mel Gibson's war movie We Were Soldiers at editorial meetings.

He also worked long hours. "He was in before you and he left after you," says former Dublin Daily features editor, Fionnuala McCarthy. "There would be meetings, and in a moment of silence all you would hear was his stomach growling. But he would never complain. In all the time I have worked with him, I have never seen him lose his temper." Hayes's father died during the period of the Dublin Daily, but he took only two days off work.

Two weeks before the title's collapse, and after working with Hayes at The Title and Ireland On Sunday, McCarthy left to become editor of Woman's Way. "There was not as much editorial direction as many would have wanted. He would try to be all things to everyone, and appeal to different markets all within one paper."

As the dust settles, some journalists and photographers remain out of pocket, but at the meeting that wound up the company only one person is reported to have lost their temper with Hayes. For all the problems, he had inspired loyalty. When launching the paper, he had pursued staff, meeting them at least three times each; selling his vision for the paper, persuading journalists that they should leave steady jobs, in a time of economic uncertainty and join his untested product. He paid well, but didn't like to discuss money until absolutely necessary. He would order pizzas for staff working late, just as when editor of Ireland On Sunday he would buy hot breakfasts for those working Christmas shifts.

He is, it is said, obsessed with Independent Newspapers, and found particular pleasure in persuading Dr Robin O'Reilly - who is separated from Tony O'Reilly junior - to become Dublin Daily's social diarist. Yet, the irony is that Associated Newspapers, with an aggressive and successful editorial and marketing campaign, has managed to rattle the cage of Independent Newspapers in a way that Hayes always wanted to, but never quite managed.

The motivation behind Dublin Daily, though, was to establish a successful product that could then be sold on. In an interview before its launch, he was dismissive of doomsayers. He told the Sunday Times: "You don't walk down the aisles of a supermarket and say, there's the sliced pans and cans of soup, they've been there for 40 years. Sure, there's so many of them, we'll never come out with a new recipe for soup. You can not say that. Every product has to be challenged." That may be so, but the collapse of Dublin Evening (née Daily) will only serve to convince his detractors that he was not the man to rise to that challenge on this occasion.

Whether he believes that himself, though, is another matter.